During the latest Democratic debate in Milwaukee, there was a moment where Bernie Sanders said something that, to some, sounded kind of weird.
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Questioned about the historical significance of his potential presidency (compared with Hillary Clinton possibly being the first woman president), Sanders said: “From a historical point of view, somebody with my background, somebody with my views, somebody who has spent his entire life taking on the big money interests, I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment, as well.”
At a Democratic debate-watch party at a swanky New York bar that night, his comment prompted discontent in the usually Bernie-supporting crowd. “Just say you’ll be the first Jewish president!” somebody screamed at the screen.
This wasn’t first time Sanders has inspired this kind of frustration. Over and over again, he has referred to himself as the ״son of a Polish immigrant," leading some to wonder why the first Jew to win a presidential U.S. primary seems reluctant to mention his Jewishness.
“It’s a bit unusual for a Jew—no less a 74-year old Jew—to refer to himself as the children of Polish immigrants: The historical Jewish experience in Poland is not what one would exactly call ‘rosy,’” Michael A. Cohen wrote in Tablet.
Of course, everyone knows Bernie Sanders is Jewish. He doesn't speak about it at length, but he isn't trying to hide it. And really, can there be anything more Jewish than being played by Larry David (Maybe playing yourself in a shouting and waving match opposite Larry David.)
Yet Sanders’ refusal to celebrate his Judaism is making many Jews, in America and abroad, uneasy. At this point, even Donald Trump has spoken more Yiddish and spoken more about Judaism (albeit in vaguely racist tones) during this election cycle than Sanders.
But Sanders isn’t afraid to admit he’s Jewish. He played a rabbi named Manny Shevitz in a movie once, after all. Speaking with the Christian Science Monitor in 2015, he said “I’m proud to be Jewish.” And it’s hard to imagine that Republicans, backed by who knows how much of Sheldon Adelson’s fortune, would attack a candidate based on his Jewish background, especially if that candidate has already given them enough material by proclaiming he’s a socialist.
The insecurity of the American Jew
At some level, the anxious way in which pundits and supporters have tried to get Sanders to be more outspoken about his Jewishness may say more about the insecurity of the American Jewish community than the candidate. Writing in Forward, Valerie Lieber argued, “Unless the Democratic candidate begins to more publicly admit his Jewish identity (even though he doesn’t practice Judaism as a religion), it will become a huge vulnerability.” If Sanders doesn’t own up to his Jewishness, Lieber warns, Republicans will smear him using coded language that says “he’s not one of us.”
The nervousness is understandable: Jews fought long and hard to be accepted in American society, and still don’t feel at home among WASP patricians.
Indeed, in a race rife with pandering (Rubio speaking Spanish on Univision, Ben Carson praising Kanye West, Hillary Clinton hispandering by deeming herself an abuela), Sanders’ refusal to throw a little Yiddishkeit here and there sets him apart. Some might say it sticks out like a sore thumb.
But this universalism is Sanders through and through. For better or worse, it’s what makes Sanders Sanders. Not singling himself out as a Jew ties in with one of Sanders’ central messages: that the American people must rise above ethnic labels and racial divides to focus on ways the influence of special interests and billionaires in Washington harms all of them, Jews and non-Jews alike.
"When we stand together, as white and black and Hispanic and gay and straight and woman and man. When we stand together and demand that this country works for all us, rather than the few, we will transform America,” he says in a recent viral ad.
Note that Sanders' most enthusiastic supporters are millennials, who tend to see themselves as global citizens. No wonder they respond to Sanders’ universalism - it speaks directly to their sensibilities.
Sanders’ success isn’t because he is or isn't a Jew; it is due to his going beyond it. In a race defined by racial, religious and gender divides, Sanders has managed to carve his own niche by saying: there are bigger tsures. Which is, in itself, quite a Jewish thing to say.